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SPIN Essentials

Mark Lanegan Band, ‘Blues Funeral’ (4AD)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 07, 2012
Label: 4AD

Is it really possible that Mark Lanegan hasn’t already put out an album called Blues Funeral? I mean, shit, that title would work for any of ’em. Which isn’t to say that the ex-Screaming Trees frontman’s albums all sound the same — far from it — but they pretty much all feel the same: bad. Like, wake-up-in-a-cheap-motel-room-head-aching-pour-me-another-drink bad. In his songs, all hope is always lost, yet we press on anyway, or at least he does.

Much of this vibe comes from Lanegan’s voice — a smoke-scarred, death-haunted baritone that croaks, rasps, and howls with charismatic relish. The man could turn a Sesame Street sing-along into a deathbed confessional. “With piranha teeth / I’ve been dreaming of you,” he moans here with typical cheeriness on opener “The Gravedigger’s Song,” a throbbing, reverb-heavy swirl that recalls his work with Queens of the Stone Age and feels like the sort of love song someone might write just before pushing their lover in front of a train.

On it goes: “Oh, baby, don’t it feel so bad,” he groans on “Bleeding Muddy Water,” an atmospheric, post-apocalyptic crawl. The attraction to pain and life’s seamy underbelly is almost erotic, with Lanegan describing the titular swamp in terms that feel weirdly sexual: “Muddy water be my grave / You are the master, I’ve been the slave… You know I feel you in my iron lung.” The supple “Phantasmagoria Blues,” with its lament of “a bruised and beaten love” alongside images of razor blades and electric chairs, feels cut from the same cloth.

Lanegan is a recovering heroin addict and, presumably, a lifelong depressive, but he’s no slacker. Blues Funeral is the seventh album under his name, and that doesn’t include two he made with Belle & Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell, one with Greg Dulli (as the Gutter Twins), two with the U.K. electronic duo Soulsavers, and his off-and-on collaborations with QOTSA. This is also the second album credited to his “band,” which this time around includes drummer Jack Irons (ex-Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers) and guitarist Alain Johannes (ex-Eleven and QOTSA sideman), along with intermittent contributions from Dulli and Lanegan’s numberous other QOTSA compatriots, Josh Homme, guitarist Alain Johannes, Dave Catching, and Chris Goss, among others. Echoes of that band’s snarling guitar stomp can be heard on the raucous “Riot in My House,” which also boasts what might be the stoner-rock lyric of the year: “When burnouts by the score / Strung out in metal cages / See Technicolor pour / From every laceration / I realize that I’m slowly coming down with you.” The clattering, psychedelic rocker “Quiver Syndrome” features sweet, insistent hooks and warm backing ooohs (think “Sympathy for the Devil”) that somehow only make it sound more sinister.

Elsewhere, the musical influences are a little more surprising; several tunes pulse with electronic beats and prominent synths. “Ode to Sad Disco” is roughly what its title promises: a woozy meditation on the emptiness of club culture (“See all the lonely children lose their minds”) set to a sleek groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Depeche Mode song, while “Harborview Hospital” lays Lanegan’s troubled growls about devils, fiends, and hellhounds over chiming guitar lines, sparkling synths, and a shuffling dance beat. The effect is oddly invigorating, injecting an uncharacteristic lightness into the proceedings.

Such sonic textures filter into nearly half of the songs on Blues Funeral — perhaps the creative residue of those Soulsavers collaborations — but ultimately it doesn’t greatly alter the emotional tenor. Interestingly, it’s the album’s most ominous-sounding tune that provides a note of hope. The song, a stone-cold Leonard Cohen-style bummer called “Deep Black Vanishing Train,” feels like Lanegan’s attempt to explain the lifelong wrestling match with his demons. “Lost on a violent sea / Day on endless day,” he sings over a distorted acoustic guitar and distant organ tones. “I have finally freed myself / But it’s been hard to break away.” The idea that the light at the end of the tunnel could be something other than an onrushing train may be the closest he ever gets to redemption.